Engaging sceptics : parliamentary communications in a post-truth era

Anikka Weerasinghe, WFD Research Associate and former Head of Media Relations, UK House of Commons

With a minority government in power and Brexit looming on the horizon, for the next two years, all eyes will be on Westminster. Renewed public interest in parliament will accentuate its responsibility to communicate with, and engage citizens in, its work.

As part of our broader open parliaments and democratic space agenda, WFD has partnered with the House of Commons for a research project to explore what effective parliamentary communications looks like. Over the next six months we will be working together to add to the body of work on the impact of parliamentary communications to provide insight and observations for policymakers inside and outside the UK.

Increased interest presents a positive opportunity for parliamentary engagement. The rise in voter turnout and use of social media in the general election last month hints at increased appetite from the public to know what parliament is doing, but still the perception remains that more must be done to address the relatively low levels of political engagement and trust.

Was there ever a golden age of politics?

In part, as a result of the 2009 Expenses Scandal, the UK Parliament has put considerable effort into increasing transparency, public engagement, education and communications. Yet many wrongly assume that there was a golden age of politics before the Scandal where an unquestioning public revered their politicians and democratic institutions. In actuality, trust in the UK Parliament has held at roughly the same level for the past decade, with the Expenses Scandal acting as only a blip in the public’s attitudes towards their representatives.

“Faced with increased public scepticism, apathy and rapid technological change, parliaments around the world are increasingly interested in engaging citizens in the democratic process and are asking searching questions about what really works”

Studies from the UK and abroad reveal that citizens’ feelings about their democracy and the individual actors and institutions that make up their constituent parts are varied, as are their causes and effects. For parliaments in particular the literature is even less revealing. There are only a handful of studies that examine citizens’ trust and satisfaction with parliaments, but even these cannot tell us the full picture. While policymakers often make assumptions about what a healthy democracy looks like, if the public has revealed anything to us over the past 18 months, it is we cannot readily assume to know what they want. We simply do not have sufficient evidence to solve the major ills of democratic decline, and this makes the role of communications professionals who are tasked with the job of fixing this reputational gap, incredibly challenging.

Countering political malaise

Unfortunately, the challenges of low political engagement are not unique to the UK. Faced with increased public scepticism, apathy and rapid technological change, parliaments around the world are increasingly interested in engaging citizens in the democratic process and are asking searching questions about what really works. As discussed at the recent Global Legislative Openness Conference in Kyiv, parliaments are traditionally slow-moving institutions and uptake of new methods of communications to increase trust with the public has been slow to pay dividends.

In part, this may be because many assume that the traditional communications approaches that apply to corporations, governments or non-profit organisations will also work for parliaments. While there are valuable lessons to learn from other professional communicators, parliaments are complex stakeholder environments with competing, politically nuanced communications agendas. Furthermore, the nature of legislatures means that there are a limited number of similar institutions from which colleagues can share good practice or learn from one another.

“This means changing how parliaments communicate, moving away from the passive sharing of information to a more active approach that puts citizens at the heart of their work”

Parliaments, however, cannot simply wait until the prevailing winds tilt in their favour. Instead, they must find new ways of building trust. This means changing how parliaments communicate, moving away from the passive sharing of information to a more active approach that puts citizens at the heart of their work, a trend that is clearly growing and where the UK Parliament is a global leader. Crucially, it also requires further research to better understand the conditions under which citizens trust or do not trust their parliaments and what factors influence this behaviour, positively or negatively.

The challenges facing our political institutions are perhaps the greatest in a generation, and the public needs to trust and engage with their democracy more now than ever before. Public sector communicators generally, and parliamentary communicators in particular, need as much support as possible to tackle the problem of low political engagement. The first step in addressing this growing challenge is to widen the evidence-base and enhance discussions with practitioners in this field in order to provide the best outcomes for the public to participate in their democracy.


(Photo: Students from England and Wales take part in a learning event about democracy in the UK House of Lords © Parliamentary Copyright (Open Parliament Licence v3.0) Image: Mark Dimmock)
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Democracy and the role of impartial media

By Sue Inglish, Independent Governor

It is a great privilege to be asked to become an independent governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. I have been a broadcast journalist for most of my career covering elections at home and abroad and my experience has shown me that wherever you are in the world, a thriving democracy needs free, independent and impartial media.

As a producer for Channel 4 News in 1986 I was in the Philippines covering an election which pitted the corrupt and violent regime of President Ferdinand Marcos against the widow of one of his political opponents.

Benigno Aquino was assassinated on the tarmac of Manila airport as he returned to his country from exile. Cory Aquino, a woman of tiny stature and huge courage, dressed in her trademark yellow, campaigned fearlessly and drew huge crowds at her rallies.

For the international media flocking to Manila it was a great story and the eyes of the world were on the Philippines. The local media too, particularly radio, played a key role in the election.

As we filmed voters at the polling stations on election day, reports came in from election observers around the country of intimidation and blatant electoral violations by Marcos’s supporters. Despite Mrs Aquino’s undoubted popularity, Marcos was declared the winner. It seemed that dictatorship had trumped democracy and the will of the people had been ignored. But thousands took to the streets in a display of People Power. With the world’s media broadcasting every move in the drama, the US government abandoned its support for the regime, Cory Aquino was sworn in as president and Marcos and his wife, Imelda fled the country. One of the most telling images was of the crowds flocking to the presidential palace, staring in amazement at Imelda Marcos’s collection of thousands of pairs of shoes, a testament to 20 years of greed and corruption.

“For a democracy to function properly, it needs a well-informed electorate”

I left the country with a certificate proclaiming me, along with hundreds of other foreign journalists, a “hero of the Philippine People’s Revolution”. The course of democracy there has not been easy in the intervening years but in 1986, there was no doubt that the Philippine people were the real heroes.

Twenty years later as head of the BBC’s political programmes, I was responsible for political, parliamentary and election coverage. The BBC’s role is to provide all its audiences on television, radio and online with impartial, accurate and comprehensive news and information.

Impartiality in all its news coverage, particularly political journalism, is at the heart of the BBC’s values. Viewers expect the BBC and other broadcasters to examine robustly the policies of the political parties helping them to understand the complex issues of our time. Audience research carried out during the current general election, shows that the BBC is still the most trusted source of news and information.

In 2010 during the UK General Election campaign, for the first time, the leaders of the three largest political parties agreed to take part in three live televised debates. The programmes were watched by a total of 22 million people and were particularly popular among younger viewers and people who usually do not watch traditional political output. Viewers said they were better informed about the key issues as a result.

For a democracy to function properly, it needs a well-informed electorate. In an era of social media and so-called fake news, now more than ever, people need trusted sources of news and information.

I am looking forward to bringing my experience as a journalist to the work of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in strengthening democracies around the world.

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On the ground with Botswana Movement for Democracy

By Harriet Shone, Liberal Democrats Head of International Office

“It’s clear from what people have said to me that they have had enough of being let down by the government. They want change. I am fighting to make sure we have better schools, smaller class sizes, a strong economy where everyone has a job, and a transparent government that people can trust.”

These words were shared by MP and opposition leader Ndaba Gaolathe across thousands of households in Botswana. They remain his commitment to the people of his constituency. Ndaba is now actively working to improve the lives of every Batswana.

In reaching this point, the Africa Liberal Network in collaboration with WFD initially focused on three primary areas of support for the ALN’s sister party, the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD). These included campaign support in a local by-election, a best practice workshop on political communication, and finally in the run-up to 2014 national elections, research and voter outreach. Doing so directly contributes to WFD’s four outcome areas: the ALN’s support has helped strengthen the policies developed by the BMD and its ability to both represent and reach out to Botswana’s citizens, improving their engagement and participation in the political process.

To the shock of many Batswanas and the campaign team, the much celebrated and admired BMD leader Gomolemo Motswaledi passed away in a car accident just a short while before Election Day in the country. This tragedy was a major blow to the BMD, ALN and all involved in the campaign. Still, the ALN was determined that more could be done to grow liberal democracy in Botswana. The belief was that this would be the best way of commemorating the late BMD leader.

With a firm understanding in sharing successes amongst our members in Africa and abroad, the ALN facilitated the involvement of the Democratic Alliance (South Africa) and the UK Liberal Democrats Head of Strategic Seat Operations, Victoria Marsom. This led to a peer-to-peer mentoring programme of the BMD and its coalition partners in the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC).

BMD2Towards the end of the project, Victoria worked closely with the leadership of the UDC, guiding their assessment of key constituencies and the setting of targets.

“Polling day was approaching. I spoke with Ndaba Gaolathe who had taken over as BMD Leader and Deputy Leader of the UDC.

“I arrived in Gaborone six days before the election. It was a hectic week! The handwritten blue letter from Ndaba was delivered across the constituency by the volunteers in around five hours and it really energised the team and motivated voters who’d never received anything like it before.

“On Facebook, Ndaba already had a successful personal page and a campaign page which had thousands of likes. I livened it up with calls to action such as asking supporters to change their profile photo after they had voted for him, filling local Facebook feeds with his image.

“The phone bank on election day also had a huge impact – I bought seven cheap handsets and some credit, wrote simple scripts (which were translated in to Setswana) and organised the data from the months of door to door campaigning. Nine callers took it in turns to call identified supporters, and we spoke to around 7,000 people during election day.”

The success of this project speaks for itself. The UDC now holds 17 seats in Botswana’s parliament, an increase of eight seats since the previous elections. The message of delivering change resonated with voters. Identifying key issues and themes was an exceptionally important part of the campaign, with voters now benefiting from the BMD and UDC’s work in improving sanitation, education and a cleaner, more transparent government.

Ultimately it will be Batswanas who benefit from these policies and having a party which works hard to reflect their views. Westminster Foundation for Democracy funds programmes which support political parties because doing so builds their ability to make better policy, strengthen accountability and improve citizen engagement and participation – particularly among marginalised groups like women and youth. That is exactly what the BMD has achieved with the support of Victoria and the ALN.

The BMD along with its broader UDC coalition have championed key issues to campaign on, such as access to clean water and reliable electricity. They have continued campaigning and won by-elections including a parliamentary defence and gained local council seats. They provide Botswana with a hope for a different kind of politics, and that there can be an alternative future in a country which has never changed government since independence.

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Women candidates in Bosnia & Herzegovina: What role can the media play?

With five weeks to go until local elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Westminster Foundation for Democracy brought together political parties, civil society and the media to discuss the level of coverage of women candidates – and the relationship this has with the number of women in politics.

Excluding 50% of the population

Having lived through the media furore which followed her election as the first hijab-wearing mayor in Europe, Amra Babic of Visoko has direct experience of the impact headlines can have on women politicians. “The media can turn you into a star, and the next day they can throw you down to the mud,” she told WFD’s conference in Neum. Her message to women politicians seeking coverage, though, is one of determination. “Women have to be courageous. It is difficult and demanding, but there is no other way I’m afraid.”

The figures suggest women candidates in Bosnia and Herzegovina face a real challenge. Out of 3,276 articles on the 2014 elections, Anesa Omanovic from civil society group Infohouse told the conference, just 176 discussed women candidates. Of those 176, 40% of the articles referred to only one candidate (the current Republic of Srpska Prime Minister). The result was that in a country whose population is 52% female, women made up under 20% of the legislature.

The lack of coverage of women candidates just underlines the important role the media play in shaping political discourse. It’s noticeable even to diplomats like Edward Ferguson, the UK Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina. “My newspapers are filled with page after page of men,” he told delegates. “That points to a problem; the media has a key role and responsibility for creating a space where women’s voices can be heard.”

WFD is committed to increasing the representation of marginalised groups through our parliamentary and political party programmes. In Bosnia and Herzegovina WFD has united the two in our new integrated programming concept, sharing the British democratic experience to encourage more women candidates in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “There is no justice or democracy without equality between men and women,” Professor Zarije Seizovic from the University of Sarajevo says. As a local male champion he firmly believes that “society develops faster if it includes more women.”

(Above: L-R: Amra Babic Mayor of Visoko and UK Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Edward Ferguson)

Party systems or unfair coverage?

In any democracy grappling with issues of representation there is a debate to be had about what constitutes the most important factor. Is it the role of political parties’ leadership? The number of articles published during campaigns that feature women candidates? If coverage is given, does style or substance matter? All these important issues were raised throughout the conference.

Damir Arnaut, BiH state parliamentarian and vice-president of one of the largest political parties in BiH, SBB, suggested: “The responsibility does not rest with media, but with the political system in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

Marija Milic, a candidate for the PDP in the upcoming local elections and former journalist, agreed. “We could talk to leaders about women’s visibility,” she argued. “They should understand that women have good ideas and can discuss issues with men on an equal footing. Women are slightly shy and do not have the will to speak publicly, but that is wrong because there are so many things women could say.” Political parties play a key role in choosing which candidates are promoted within the media; she felt that parties could do more for their women candidates.

Jadranka Milicevic, representing the CURE foundation, also felt that political party support was vital for women candidates who are trying to gain media coverage. “Most women are not aware of the official positions of their political parties, let alone serious issues like maternity leave, the economy and other male dominated issues” she said, “which has a negative impact on their coverage.”

The dual discrimination women with disabilities face was raised in the final session by Nihada Hadzic, an SDA councillor in Bugojno, who shared her inspirational story . “The media are a driving force that shapes public opinion,” she said. “Reports on people with disabilities are biased, and describe them as disadvantaged, vulnerable people.” Like women, “people with disabilities are invisible, we do not see them in the press or on television. But disability is a part of every-day life and this should be reflected in the media.”

(Above: L-R: Anesa Omanovic from civil society group Infohouse, Marija Milic standing as a PDP candidate and Damir Arnaut, BiH state parliamentarian and Vice President SBB)

Next steps: A commitment for change

Over 40 participants, including directors of some of the main public and private media outlets in BiH, representatives of some of the most widely represented political parties, and activists, adopted the declaration drafted on the second day of the conference. This calls on the media, civil society, political parties and women themselves to make greater efforts to promote women in politics in the run-up to the local elections.

The declaration set out concrete measures which they can take, like ensuring women candidates are represented in party campaign events and paying particular attention to the way women candidates are presented. Building on the momentum generated by the conference, the group will keep fighting for gender equality and positive discrimination ahead of the general elections in 2018.

Already during the conference and the day after, the message of fair play elections for all and the need for greater equality and women’s representation was on the airwaves of Bosnian media. From television reports to web news sites and newspaper articles, a very diverse range of media outlets all reported on the conference itself and its topic.

Referring to the declaration and opportunities provided by the conference, participant and female candidate for Nasa Stranka Aida Koluder-Agic said: “It won’t mean anything concerning the law, but it’s a voice and it’s good for this voice to be heard before the elections.”

She added that it was a great opportunity to reach out to colleagues in civil society and the media. “Meeting directors of public media was a real opportunity,” she said. “For us, we are all pioneers in this and I think it is very helpful to be brought together.”

(Above: L-R: Nihada Hadzic, SDA councillor in Bugojno, Tvrtko Milovic director from KISS TV, Prof. Zarije Seizovic, and Nerina Cevra, WFD Country Representative. )

Nerina Cevra, WFD Country Representative, said: “I was encouraged by the positive response from the media present at the conference and the action that has taken place since the conference ended. They have taken on board their responsibility toward women candidates . Now it is up to all, including women who are already in office to tell women voters in BiH why they should vote for women on the lists on October 2.”

As those elections approach the importance of hearing the voices of all parts of society – including women – is becoming clearer and clearer. Mr Ferguson, who opened the conference, said the value women could bring to policymaking and delivery sprang from their different experience and perspectives. “We all need to understand that a healthy society is where all citizens, men and women, gay or straight, can play a role in shaping the future of their communities,” he said. “To compete and survive in a modern global economy a state needs to use all of its talent, not half of it.”


Declaration for Equality: Fair play elections 2016

Deklaracija Za Jednakost: Fer Plej Izbori 2016

Javnost u Našem Dvorištu (Public In my Backyard)

Javnost u Našem Dvorištuhttp (Cirilica)

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CEDAW: Ugandan journalists give ‘voice to the voiceless’

Of all the stories she covered reporting on gender issues in Uganda, journalist Abalo Ireme Otto says the one which upset her most involved an eviction. “A woman was thrown out of the house by her husband,” she says. “Her children witnessed the scuffle.”

The press in Uganda frequently come across distressing stories like this. Another journalist recalls: “A woman was raped and she went to the police to report it. But instead a policeman kept her as a wife for some time.” These shocking incidents underline the importance of seeking change.

Reducing violence against women and girls will involve a long-running campaign. But it is one the Ugandan government is committed to, having passed a raft of legislation in 2010 bringing the country into line with the UN’s Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The challenge now is implementation. In particular one issue keeps appearing again and again, reflected by a case study described by journalist Emmy Ojave: “A woman who was denied access to land, together with her children, after her husband’s death.”

Tackling discrimination against women

Land rights for widows are protected by law under CEDAW, but this does not automatically result in justice for bereaved women. In economies heavily dependent on agriculture, land rights are extremely important. So when married women are separated from their spouses, either by divorce or by death, their in-laws often seize control of her possessions and property. In Uganda – as across much of East Africa – these discriminatory practices often clashes with the law.

In order to tackle this and the other issues covered by CEDAW, Westminster Foundation for Democracy supported the Ugandan Parliamentary Press Association (UPPA) in its training of journalists in December 2014. “It shall help to sensitize the masses on their rights to gender equality,” as journalist Komakech Geoffrey described the training’s purpose. WFD’s goal has been to improve reporting on CEDAW in a bid to improve understanding of the new laws which enforce it.

Woman Cooking in Uganda - Mark JordahlJournalists spread awareness

Since then many of the journalists have updated WFD about the difference their subsequent reporting has made. “After the training I was able to trace down a survivor of gender-based violence and exposed her plight to the world,” Julius Ocungi says. “The response to her was overwhelming, because she was beloved. She was exposed to humanitarian organisations who helped in treating the citizen.”

Emmy Ojave has a similar example .”I advocated for the rights of a widow who was denied access to her late husband’s land,” she explains. “I wrote about the role of women in bringing about change. They mediated and the woman with children was given a plot of land for cultivation and construction.”

These journalists have contributed to raising awareness about CEDAW and in the process helped establish women’s rights. All those updating WFD say they have much more to offer, too. “I expect to accord more women and young girls the chances of having justice served to them,” Julius Ocongi says. “I feel revamped to do more to help our women out there,” Abalo Ireme Otto adds.

‘A voice for the voiceless’

For these journalists, trained by UPPA with WFD’s support, their work can make a real difference to citizens’ lives. Their role is to be a “voice of the voiceless”, as Komakech Geoffrey puts it. Wilfred Ronny Okot is more specific. His role, he says, is “to inform, educate and empower the public on their roles, responsibilities, contributions and rights”. For Abalo Ireme Otto, her mission is simple: “To stand for the truth in the fight against women discrimination.”

WFD’s 30-month programme supporting CEDAW is approaching its closure, but we aim to offer further support to the Ugandan Parliament in the years to come. In the meantime our work with Ugandan journalists has changed reporting on these issues – and even shaped the views of the reporters themselves. One anonymous journalist confessed to having changed attitudes because of the training. “Culture had a serious effect on my way of reporting,” he admitted, “since some cultural practices promoted discrimination against women. But now it won’t affect me.”

Featured images: Flickr
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Demonstrating WFD’s results: Playing a long game

We’re not building a school or digging a well—the immediate beneficiaries are not children or the vulnerable. Yet parliamentary strengthening is a cornerstone of democracy. How do we communicate this to citizens?

By Alex Stevenson, WFD Head of Communications
Featured photo: Graham Veal
Parliamentary strengthening matters.
It’s a key aspect of good governance and a cornerstone of representative democracy. But communicating its importance and the results which flow from it to donors, stakeholders and even among ourselves is far from straightforward. In extremis, this problem can even undermine the validity of parliamentary strengthening.

In blunt terms, the work of organisations like Westminster Foundation for Democracy is not always thrilling, or even emotive. We’re not building a school or digging a well. The immediate beneficiaries are not children or the vulnerable, and very few of them will be living in poverty. A committee session about tweaking the rules of procedure is never going to be Hollywood box office stuff.Yet the parliamentarians whose working lives benefit from our support aren’t the people this kind of programming is ultimately seeking to help. Whether through improved policy, better accountability, more representative politics or enhanced citizen participation in public life, parliaments matter because they can help change citizens’ lives for the better.

It’s a shame that much of the public debate about parliaments’ role is either seen through a partisan perspective or described by constitutionalists whose terms of reference feel removed from everyday life. During my six years as a journalist writing from the House of Commons Press Gallery about the relationship between the UK’s executive and its parliament, I often made this mistake. As a communicator seeking to highlight why parliaments matter, a more productive approach focusing on the real beneficiaries seems to be essential.

That’s why, in the last few months, I’ve been thinking hard about a new way of showcasing WFD’s results—and, more generally, overcoming the obstacles to communicating the reasons for backing parliamentary strengthening. This is not ground-breaking work, but it does seek to return to first principles and ensure that WFD’s work is not unnecessarily marginalised.

Two obstacles, in particular, need to be tackled head-on. First is the question of what I call ‘citizen proximity’—how close a beneficiary actually is to being an ordinary person. The clerk of a parliamentary committee might make a good interviewee, but their work is framed narrowly and doesn’t speak much to the experiences of the average person in the street. An MP is marginally better, especially if they represent specific constituents. Consulting a civil society organisation, which can speak for a group of citizens and anticipate the changes any shift in policy might bring, is much more like it. Best of all is a citizen—someone whose life has actually been altered by a change that could only have happened because of parliamentary strengthening.

Finding such a citizen might seem rare or unusual—and this is the second obstacle. Achieving change like this takes a lot of time; parliamentary strengthening is patient, long-term work. On a day-to-day basis it involves building the capability of parliaments and political parties. Tracing the link between these activities and a citizen’s life is surely the principal challenge of demonstrating results in this sector.

The answer lies in policy changes resulting from WFD’s interventions. Take our support for the Coalition of Arab Women MPs combating domestic violence, for example. This is campaigning to abolish provisions in the MENA region’s penal codes which allow rapists to escape prosecution by marrying their victim. At the conclusion of a recent meeting of the coalition, the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament declared his wish to see the topic debated. That is an excellent result; it shows an issue is being debated that might not otherwise have been. The use of a research centre’s products, or a parliamentary budget office’s analysis, or the election of a women candidate who had been supported by WFD, to take some of WFD’s other examples, would also fall under this category. Tracing the link between these activities and a citizen’s life is surely the principal challenge of demonstrating results in this sector.

By the time that some of these debates would actually result in a policy being changed, the programme which began the process could well have wrapped up. This is the next big landmark in the policy change process, which should be celebrated. In Kyrgyzstan in April 2015, WFD’s project completion report noted that a new law had been passed regulating veterinary vaccines. This was great news on its own terms, because the issue had been brought to the attention of MPs via regional committee hearings set up by WFD. We could have spoken to a farmers’ union or other representative body, perhaps, and heard how the change had the potential to make a big difference.

But passing a policy doesn’t automatically result in implementation. It takes even more time for this to happen. It’s only then that the link between a strengthened parliament and an individual’s life can be properly completed. In some instances the connection happens quickly: a Jordanian youth leader trained as part of a WFD programme in 2013 quickly led an initiative which reversed a local trend in forest fires, for example. (I travelled to the Jordan Valley in March to find a citizen beneficiary, Roqaya Al-Orood.) In other cases, especially when working with political parties, a decade seems like a reasonable amount of time to have to wait.

That, surely, is a major obstacle to finding and demonstrating results. A combination of journalistic tenacity and rigorous monitoring is needed to keep track of so many potential avenues of inquiry. It is certainly an area of improvement for WFD, which has achieved results in spades, and is now doing more to dig them out.

A new conversation

As part of WFD’s broader exploration of the barriers to parliamentary strengthening, I want to find out more about how other organisations approach this. Of course it is about more than just communications; effective monitoring and evaluation is essential if these comms-friendly case studies are to become logframe-friendly stories of change. But demonstrating results will always be a strategic messaging priority for parliamentary strengthening organisations.

This leads me to my questions for others working on communicating the value of parliamentary strengthening:

• What does best practice in this very niche area of work look like?

• Do others share my conviction that ‘being human’ is the best way to surmount the ostensibly dry subject matter?

• Do you agree that any case study needs to be as long-term in scope as is needed to connect a strengthened parliament with an improvement in a citizen’s life?

• How far should communicators go in finding citizens even before a policy change is achieved?

• Or are there other ways of demonstrating results not even covered in this article?

I hope this appeal for insight from others can help start a conversation about the right approaches to finding results in parliamentary strengthening. WFD and organisations like it have great stories to tell—but there is work to be done in finding and fleshing out those stories. If we share our approaches, perhaps we all might get a little better at it. And that would be something of a result in itself.

This article was published on openDemocracy as part of WFD’s research project How do parliaments shape democracy – and democracies shape parliaments?

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Party focus: African Christian Democratic Party

We met Grant Haskin, Communications Director for the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) in South Africa, and Jeffrey Donaldson, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP for Lagan Valley and WFD Governor, to see how their parties’ partnership has helped strengthen the ACDP’s approach to communications ahead of the elections scheduled for later this year.

How do the parties in the Multi-Party Office build on their established sister-party relationships? Jeffrey Donaldson (JD): A lot of work in the past has focused on the sister party relationships. However, the Lib Dems and the ALN, for example, are not just working with one party but across a network. The Northern Ireland parties tend to have a single sister-party relationship, so the DUP has been supporting the capacity of the ACDP in South Africa for several years. Our current project is focused on improving their communication strategy. Grant, who is Communications Director of the ACDP, will be looking at the relationship between the Westminster team, the team in the Northern Ireland Assembly and at the local level. He will be looking at the consistency of communication output across the three different levels, which are parallel to the South Africa system.

What have you learnt from the DUP about communicating the ACDP message?
Grant Haskin (GH): There is definitely a lot we can learn, as our electorate in South Africa of course has a lot less experience with democracy in general. We are a young democracy; people are not used to voting, they are not used to translating a belief system into a vote. We are trying to bring a new message that changes that. We want to understand how the DUP over time has substantially increased their support base from a small number of MPs to having a majority – that is our ultimate goal. Our relationship with the DUP has come a long way. Our election results haven’t shown it yet, but the way we do things internally has changed substantially over the years.

Listening is essential for effective communication – how do you plan to engage with perspective voters?
GH: Our own members and our candidates need to know what we are doing and why we are doing it. The people who should vote for us need to understand why, and those who are voting for us must see the new ACDP as nothing different to what they have voted for in the past. Keeping them on the same page is a tricky business!
JD: The challenge we face is that we live in a world that is changing. The world is becoming more secular and less influenced by a faith approach to things. Issues like the economy, like healthcare, like education, are important. People know where we stand traditionally on the faith-based issues, but we don’t put them at the front and centre. If the ACDP are going to reverse the decline that mirrors the reluctance of voters to vote on their faith alone, they must demonstrate what they are going to do on the economy, on health, on education. I think the ACDP needs to get out of, as the DUP had to, the image of being a Christian party. It has to get out there and compete with other parties on socio-economic issues.

How can you keep the ACDP’s traditional support base happy and address the broader concerns of other citizens?
GH: We will do it in a way that does not alienate our traditional support base who expect us to focus on the moral issues. When they don’t hear us saying that they get worried, it’s a balancing act. Ahead of this election we have changed how the ACDP approaches the President’s State of the Nation address and the various budget votes. We have come out very strongly on socio-economic issues, like the drought in South Africa. People are hearing us on issues that they have not heard us on yet. They are seeing us as looking after the people and putting the people first in our approach to governing, instead of the perception that we are putting the Bible first.

In what ways have the ACDP incorporated the support from WFD, and the DUP in particular, into their approach ahead of the elections?
GH: I have already seen an important change in the way the ACDP is gearing itself up for these elections as a result of the focus that this programme is putting on media and communications. We are seeing members and political office bearers who are much more aware of their role. They are all being more consistent with each other. We use social media more consistently; we developed a social media policy and brought it across the country.
The party you experience in one city in South Africa is the same you should experience in a rural village. The capacity that this programme has given me to engage with the rural municipality, the village and the town is important. Now because of the programme I can engage with all of them, and take them from where they are to an improved space of engaging internally and externally within the party. We are training them on how to prepare for media interviews and conduct research; basic things that they never had the opportunity to learn. This has already improved our sense of political confidence going into the election.

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EALA Speaker praises WFD’s ‘dedication and commitment’

EALA office

With WFD’s help, the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) is using the region’s rapidly growing mobile and internet use to bring citizens closer to its work. More and more people are learning about its effectiveness and representation capabilities – and will continue to do so for many years.

This week saw the closure of WFD’s EALA programme after four years of engagement. Our work has contributed to the establishment of its Public Relations Office, the development of a Strategic Plan, increased engagement with civil society and, in the last six months, increased engagement with social media.

EALA Kidega

Speaker Kidega addresses the debrief event

“The Strategic Plan gave the Assembly a clear intent and direction,” EALA’s Speaker, the Rt. Hon Daniel Kidega, said before the debrief event in Arusha. “To take the Assembly to the people and reaching out was our biggest challenge – but that is what integration is about.” This engagement was illustrated by the recent Burundi crisis, which prompted an “amazing” engagement from civil society and the general public on social media.

That response reflects fast-moving changes across the region. Development across East Africa is gathering pace, while the opportunities for strengthening integration among the region’s five states are growing rapidly. EALA, which produces laws that affect the region’s 120 million citizens, plays an important role in this. Its task is to both foster regional cooperation and represent its citizens. In the coming years, EALA can tap into the opportunities offered by this rapid technological change. “Communicating what we are doing and gaining feedback is very important for accountability, oversight and representation,” Speaker Kidega added.

Flags of the East African Community nations fly outside the EALA building

It’s been the fast growth of social media and online platforms which has been the most recent focus of our support for EALA. Staff, EAC Youth Ambassadors, CSO representatives and Parliamentary Officers from partner states have received training in social media use and the Public Relations Office is in the process of developing a digital strategy. The internet offers a new way for citizens to engage with the Assembly and its work. WFD has facilitated this ongoing, developing relationship by producing educational YouTube videos targeted at primary and secondary school children, which will be broadcast on national television and utilised in schools across the partner states; developing new online platforms for engagement; and redesigning the EALA website, which was launched at the debrief event.

Majda El Bied, WFD’s Senior Programme Manager for Africa, addresses the debrief 

We’re now entering a period of hiatus in our activities with the Assembly as a result of this great progress but hope to return in the future. Following our programme’s completion in March 2016, the Public Relations Office will continue utilising the tools provided by WFD and the Strategic Plan runs until 2018.

The EALA offices – where WFD has been working since 2008

“The lessons WFD has learned on parliamentary communications and outreach work are valuable and can be applied to a range of other contexts,” Programme Officer for Africa Charlotte Egan said.

“WFD is proud of its work at EALA and we will maintain our valued relationships with its leadership in the years to come.”

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Social media in East Africa: Connecting citizens with lawmakers

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other popular social media sites are steadily gathering growing audiences in East Africa.

That poses a big challenge to parliaments in the region – and an opportunity, too…

WFD’s currently working with the East African Community in Arusha, Tanzania, to boost the communications and outreach capacity of the East African Legislative Assembly. A regional intergovernmental organisation, EAC is comprised of the five member states of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda – a combined population of more than 138 million people.

EALA 1EALA plays a critical role within the EAC structure. Much like the European Parliament, its role is to draft and scrutinize legislation which advances the community’s goals of establishing a common market, monetary union and political federation. The Assembly’s made up of 45 MPs – nine for each member state – which meets in the chamber, pictured here.

EALA 2WFD’s been working at EALA since 2010. We’ve supported the production, dissemination and monitoring of EALA’s strategic plan for the 3rd Assembly 2013-18. We’ve assisted four of the Assembly’s six standing committees, strengthening the knowledge and skills of their members. And we’ve engaged with the East African Civil Society Organisations’ Forum (EACSOF), which has mobilised civil society organisations to consult with EALA. Our office is based in the EALA wing of the EAC building – pictured here in the shade on the left.

EALA 3Across the five member state countries there are lots of audiences which EALA needs to communicate with – from universities, schools, business groups and civil society organisations to national assemblies and citizens. The challenge for EALA, as with other regional parliaments, is finding ways to give citizens greater access to its processes – first by growing awareness of EALA, and then by helping them participate more in its work.

EALA 4WFD’s head of communications, Alex Stevenson, headed to Arusha to develop a social media strategy for EALA. He’s pictured here with EALA’s comms team of Bobi Odiko and Lawrence Munezero. Their intention is to use social media channels like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to connect EALA’s work with the active debates and discussions already taking place in East Africa on social media.

EALA 5It’ll be a big moment when a social media user’s comment is fed into EALA and actually influences its legislation. That will be a key milestone, not just for EALA but for the whole East African Community and the region as a whole.

EALA 6As the strategy is implemented it’s hoped that the growing use of social media across East Africa will be harnessed to strengthen public sentiment and awareness about EALA – and its ability to change people’s lives. That is an outcome for which the EAC’s founding fathers – Mwalimu Julius K. Nyerere of Tanzania, Apollo Milton Obote of Uganda and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya – would surely all be proud.


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